This is my third novel from author Jeannie Lin – fourth story – and I'm happy to say I continue to enjoy myself.
“Concubine” is the story of Yan Ling, a tea house serving girl, and Chang Fei Long, the “Professor Higgins” of this take on My Fair Lady.
Here's the back cover blurb of the plot, though I'll give away a bit more:
Yan Ling tries hard to be servile—it's what's expected of a girl of her class. Being intelligent and strong-minded, she finds it a constant battle.
Proud Fei Long is unimpressed by her spirit—until he realizes she's the answer to his problems. He has to deliver the emperor a "princess." In two months can he train a tea girl to pass as a noblewoman?
Yet it's hard to teach good etiquette when all Fei Long wants to do is break it, by taking this tea girl for his own...
The reason Fei Long has to deliver a "princess" is because his family promised to do so in exchange for enough money to negate the family's debt. Only the girl they'd intended to use skips town before the book begins. Throughout the book, the reader is intensely aware that Fei Long cannot act on his love for Yan Ling without putting his entire household, family and servants, into servitude forever. Yan Ling, who loves the household as if they were her own family, feels the same way. The tug of duty versus desire is palpable and exquisite.
I'd have to say I was aware while reading that this was a remake of a much later, non-Asian story. The novel doesn't feel as firmly settled during the Tang era as the Dragon and The Pearl – Lin's previous book – but, that did not distract me. Perhaps in large part because Lin's grasp of unattainable heart-rending desire was more realized in this story than in her other novels.
One part of the story's conclusion was given away earlier than I would have liked. It reduced the tension. But there were enough other questions still at large by the end of the story, that one reveal was pretty minor. The competition at the end of the book was pure enjoyment and delight, as were so many other points.
For instance, the first thing our heroine does upon meeting Fei Long is deliberately throw a pot of tea in his face. How can you not love that beginning? Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins, just you wait....
No empires or dynasties were threatened during the writing of this novel and that sort of additional tension wasn't necessary to the story. It's simply a joy to read – with or without Julie Andrews opining about “someone's 'ead restin' on my knee, warm an' tender as 'e can be. 'oo takes good care of me, aow, wouldn't it be loverly?”
Yes. Yes, it was.